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Information Science Professor Karen Levy: At the Intersection of Technology and the Law

Karen Levy was working as a law clerk for the U.S. federal court system when she decided to get her Ph.D. in sociology. “[For] a lot of the people you see in the justice system, it’s clear there are social roots to their problems,” she says. “There’s only so much you can do to help someone once they’re in court, but there’s more one can do when looking at how their lives have been shaped up to that point [by] the community they come from.”

Levy became interested in studying rules and how they are enforced, fairly or unfairly, by technology. Now an assistant professor of information science and adjunct assistant professor in the Cornell Law School, Levy researches how law and technology interact to regulate social life, with particular focus on social, organizational and ethical aspects of data collection.

“Much of what’s interesting and exciting about the development of new technology has to do with how we fit it into the way we live – what rules we make around technology, what consequences it might have for different groups of people, and how to make these choices ethically,” Levy says.

She is working on a book about surveillance in the workplace with an emphasis on the trucking industry and how technologies have been used in recent years to change how work is structured, how people are managed and how they intersect with cultural norms.

Levy is also working to develop a new initiative on artificial intelligence, policy and practice with several fellow information science professors and with a recent grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

“How do we make sure the benefits of technology accrue to the people who need them?” she asks. “One of the big levers to do that is the law – by setting appropriate policies to make sure we protect the most vulnerable people from being exploited by technology.

“I like putting myself in the spaces between technology and the law,” she says. “It’s really exciting to get to work on how these issues affect real people.”